NEW ORLEANS -- The idea was hatched more than a year ago, before they ever got to the University of Kentucky campus, before they'd ever done more than play against each other on the AAU summer basketball circuit.
"We came here to win a national championship," said UK freshman point guard Marquis Teague on the eve of tonight's NCAA title game against Kansas (9:23 p.m., CBS). "That's always been our goal."
It sounds preposterous. The Wildcats' three freshmen and two sophomores winning a national championship against a KU squad of four juniors and a senior? Whatever happened to the old line about the best thing about freshmen is that they eventually become sophomores?
"They're way beyond their years," said Kansas coach Bill Self of freshman starters Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis, winner of the vast majority of national player of the year awards.
"They're young in age, but not young in experience. They're probably one of the better teams we've had in college basketball from a pure talent standpoint. They've got six pros. Three lottery picks. They're really, really talented."
If that sounds as if Self is conceding the trophy to the 37-2 Cats, he's not. The Jayhawks (32-6) have won 13 of their last 14 and have their own impressive talent in player-of-the-year runner-up Thomas Robinson, senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor, shooting guard Elijah Johnson and 7-foot center Jeff Withey, who actually has more blocked shots in the NCAA tourney than Davis (27-23).
In fact, UK coach John Calipari wasted little time expressing his concern for the Jayhawks, saying, "We must play tougher than we played [in the 69-61 semifinal win over Louisville]. If we don't, it's going to be a hard game for us to win because I think toughness is going to be the big factor in the game."
It was presumably a big factor in the first meeting between these two back on Nov. 15, when Kentucky prevailed 75-65 in Madison Square Garden after being tied at the half.
"It was a muddy game -- we defended well, we rebounded well," Kansas coach Bill Self recalled. "But the second half, when they were able to get going and get some easy baskets, they manhandled us pretty good."
Added KU's Taylor: "They create havoc defensively. When you talk about one through five, they've probably got the best five, six, seven guys, on paper anyway. They're really talented."
It isn't just talent that has most observers picking the Wildcats to win their eighth national championship tonight (first in 14 years) and deny the Jayhawks their fourth.
"Kentucky changes the game defensively," said Hall of Fame player Bill Walton, the two-time Final Four MVP during his UCLA playing career. "Anthony Davis is a generational player who alters the game like the great shot blockers Bill Russell, Alonzo Mourning and Patrick Ewing."
So how does Calipari make this work by playing four freshmen among his first seven players?
"If you don't play defense, you're not allowed to play," said sophomore Terrence Jones.
Added Teague, "Yeah, he demands it."
But while Calipari hopes tonight can make amends for the 2008 national championship he dropped to Self and Kansas while still coaching at Memphis, Teague believes the attitude of the rookie class of Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Kyle Wiltjer and himself has something to do with it.
"We've got a group of guys who love to play together, who are unselfish, who believe in defense first," he said. "We don't regret anything we've done. Everything we've done has led us to here, to the national championship game."
Kentucky isn't only here because of its freshmen or sophomores. Senior Darius Miller has routinely steadied the Cats when they've occasionally struggled, such as scoring 13 points and knocking down a crucial 3-pointer against Louisville.
But it's the rookies who have Calipari 40 minutes from his first national title.
"We want to get him his first," said Teague. "We've talked about it all year. Now we've just got to do whatever we need to do to make it happen."
Which is what six future pros who play defense should do if they can continue to be unselfish for 40 more minutes.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...